Saturday, April 26, 2008

china dispatch #1 - first days

We're here and loving China! Monday, we left San Antonio for Newark (at five in the evening, twelve hours after our usual departure times of late. Nice!); after an overnight stay in Newark, we left at noon (again, nice!) for China.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23: I'd been thinking that Newark was an awfully weird place to leave from, but of course these airlines have hubs that sometimes take them out of the way, and this is the first time we've flown Continental, so I chalked it up to that, figuring we'd take the same Great-Circle route I'd taken last time, through Seattle or something and up around Alaska and Bering Strait and so forth, right down to China. So imagine my surprise to see our flight path heading straight North.

Yep, friends, we flew right over the North Pole! The sheer poetry of the idea had me in the clouds. Of course, I was in the clouds anyway, literally, or at least over the clouds, which is why the view out the window was simply solid white-white. Of course, even without the cloud cover it would have been solid white-white-white.

Anyway, the North Pole!

The three of us — Catherine and I and Amber Best, one of Catherine's dearest friends, who has been triply and quadruply wonderful to us this trip! — hit the ground to immediately see a welcome sight: the friendly face of another of Catherine's dearest friends, Cathryn Fine Yang. I've mentioned Cathryn before. She's a linguist who has discovered some new cool stuff, and she visited us for a few days of our six-week honeymoon in northern Thailand, hopping over from where she lives and works in Khunming. That trip was closer than this one for her. Going from her place in southwest China to ours in the northeast is roughly like going from Acapulco to Toronto.

So the four of us taxied through the giant city to where our friends Brian and Cathy had agreed to host us for a bit. Here are Catherine's first impressions of Beijing, by way of her Facebook notes:

It is hard to describe the enormousness of this city. It is like being on another planet, or in the future. It has no comparison to anything I have ever experienced before.

The city is not just like ten San Antonios. That would be large. But it is large on another scale. For instance, let's just take the apartment complex we are staying in. How many people do you think a very large complex would house? Get a picture in your mind of a LARGE apartment complex. Do you have one pictured?

Now double that. Do you have that pictured in your mind?

You are not even close yet. There are 800,000 people in this complex. Eight hundred thousand!! There are three subway stops just for this complex. When we were driving on Wednesday in a Taxi I asked if we had finally reached downtown (when we had really just reached this apartment complex). The area was larger than any downtown I had ever seen. The buildings were huge and there were SO MANY of them. I didn't just feel small in comparison. I felt like I was in a movie about life in the future on another planet. Nothing here is on a human scale. And this is just where we are living at the moment. It is a very small part of Beijing.

Interesting! Maybe that's because our iconography of dystopian futures takes a huge page from 20th-century Russia and China: those huge huge avenues, flanked by huge huge buildings that house huge huge numbers of people. I remember seeing in Moscow a place where it would be possible to live your whole life — college, work, shopping, everything — without ever going outside. One of the many great ironies of these movements that do everything in the name of the People is that people are often dwarfed.

Brian and Cathy took us out to a delightful meal of traditional northern Chinese cuisine: plates and plates and bowls and bowls of delicious noodles, spiced green beans, and — ah! a flood of memories! — jiaozi. You pronounce that "jiowt-sa." Think of giant Chinese tortellini. They're addictively delicious in all of their variations. Wednesday night's jiaozi were mutton-and-carrot and chicken-and-cabbage, both spiced to perfection. I love those things. The whole meal was a perfect welcome to our new home.

THURSDAY, APRIL 24: Amber only stayed for one day (though we're awfully glad she did that, because she'd been considering just flying over! Madness!), and so we thought we'd get her a little taste of the city before she had to go. First, though, Brian took us to the local constabulary, where we had to register within twenty-four hours of arriving. Everyone has to do it. Catherine mentioned that this was required in Austria too: man, we sometimes just don't realize what freedom of movement we have till we go somewhere else!

We subwayed down to the center of town. Beijing is arrayed like a target on a chessboard. Very strict north-south lines, with concentric rings that go all the way from the giant Fifth Ring, a highway loop that once encircled the town (though I have to imagine the Sixth is on its way) in to the First Ring that once was the ancient city wall, to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the vast royal palace, all the way right down to a single house in the Forbidden City's center that once belonged to the emperor. We stopped at Snack Street to have something a bit more than a snack, and then strolled through the sunny spring morning, soaking up our first real day in the city. We passed through a delightful garden district, through the clutter of small shops and eateries that surround the Forbidden City, and then in through the East Gate and through a few of those concentric courtyards, marvelling at the scale and beauty of this ancient masterpiece of architecture and group psychology. Finally, we emerged from the South Gate onto the impossibly huge Tiananmen Square, where you can gather a million people: it's the largest public square in the world.

That's where we said goodbye (for now) to Amber, and sent her taxiing to the airport. We continued to walk around, exploring the city, enjoying the day, and trying in vain to get a taxibook. Taxibooks are the best invention in the history of all inventions. It's simply a spiral-bound flipbook with a card for every single place you'd ever want to go: restaurants, hotels, athletic clubs, parks, museums, concert halls, bars, dance clubs, everything. And each card has pictures, maps, descriptions, and detailed instructions in both English and Chinese. Invaluable! You just find the place you want to go, and show it to your taxi driver. I don't know how I'd have survived without it on my previous trip here; we've got to find one. But no one seems to know what we're talking about when we inquire. Ah, the irony! If only we had a spiral-bound flipbook that described all the maps and reference-books we might need! We could turn right to it.

After a day of walking all over the center of town, we searched and searched for the place I'd had a beautiful formal Chinese tea ceremony back in 01. I couldn't quite remember where it had been, so it was a bit trial-and-error. But we finally found it by the West Gate, and — NO! — it's been shut down for a couple of years now. What a loss. The place was beautiful, without any piped-in music or televisions or anything that might distract you from the ancient ceremonies that take place among century-old screens, live musicians performing on the Chinese zither, and beautiful sunken chambers where people reclined and relaxed and drank the delicious stuff that changed the world. Now it's gone. There was another similar one across the alley, but it wasn't quite as cool, and it was way overpriced. So we just went to the place next door where they served us pot after pot after pot of flower tea and a huge pile of buttery rice, all for about two bucks.

We took the nearly-hour-long journey back to Brian and Cathy's, where we thought we'd take a disco nap before getting out into the night to check out the jazz scene. Ha. I awoke at about 1am, noted that we probably wouldn't be going out, and then awoke again at about six, after a long nap that restored my aching feet and bones.

FRIDAY, APRIL 25: Friday was jazz day. I'd managed to find a bass player by the name of Billy Chan, who invited us over for lunch and a jam. He lives in a gorgeous, spacious apartment in one of the loveliest districts, up on about the 30th floor, with a splendid view of the city. And he has a seven-foot grand. And he served us some really good pizza. We discussed the jazz scene in Beijing, then played a few tunes for Catherine's and Cathryn's enjoyment.

Then the three of us checked out some of the places that might have jazz on nights and weekends, with very good fortune. I was especially delighted that there were so many real pianos around. What a pleasure, to be in a place where pianos are taken seriously, and where clubs and restaurants have them, and in good condition, too. This is going to be fun.

After a stupendous dinner at home, this time traditional Northwestern cuisine, we got spiffed up and went back downtown, where we hit a couple of jazz clubs: the CD Jazz Cafe, and Lan. CD was a delightful experience, with a good band fronted by a sax player. They mainly did straight-ahead, with some 70s-ish trips into funk-jazz. The funk-jazz stuff was slightly cheesy, but well-played; the straight-ahead was great. The piano player (who literally turned his back on a gorgeous grand piano to play on his electric keyboard: unforgivable!) was nonetheless a fine musician, with a laid-back swing and impeccable chops. Really nice to listen to.

I talked to the pianist over the break. He filled me in on the scene, and seemed to pretty much agree with Billy (our lunch friend) that there weren't all that many places in Beijing for jazz. But I'd done some poking around and had already discovered that Beijing is similar in a way to San Antonio, in that although there are only a couple of real, full-out jazz clubs for true believers, there are then many many places to go to get jazz, if only you know where they are. For instance, neither Dolores Del Rio nor Stefania's get mentioned in anyone's list of "jazz clubs" in SA, and yet each one has jazz seven nights a week, and, depending on when you go, you'll get some of the city's best players. I recently showed up for a gig at Stefania's and found out I was set up to play with trumpeter Adrian Ruiz, drummer Moses Olivo, and bassist Brandon Rivas: that's about as good as you can stumble into! So, it looks like things will be about like that here. I'm looking forward to hearing some satisfying musicians.

I'm certainly encouraged that, within a few days of hitting the ground, I'm finding a scene.

After CD Jazz, we visited one other place, where there was a band of younger players of uneven quality. Some were very obviously just getting into jazz, and others were really good and swung well. It's so interesting to see the generations and how their tastes so differ. I'll touch on that more later. Meanwhile, that's an update for you. We're having a wonderful time with friends old and new. Catherine is drinking in her time with Cathryn. They love each other so much, and are stranded on opposite sides of the globe. So these few days before Cathryn returns to Khunming are precious. Thanks for all your prayers. They seem to be working!

Friday, April 18, 2008


Catherine and I have received our Chinese names. We asked our friends Cathryn and Nicholas to come up with names for us that resembled "Barry" and "Catherine," but were viable Chinese names.

So, here they are. Bai Lei is my name. Bai serves as the last name, and it means "White." Lei means "Thunder." Very fitting for an American musician, yes? Catherine's name is Kai Lin, which translates to "Victorious Jade." She'll also take the Bai as her surname, so that she has a three-part name.

We're getting excited.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


My brother Richard always seems to be in horrible places right when the world is paying attention. This is by design. He's the director of the Star Program, an outfit that deals with Baptist Children's Home Ministries and Children's Emergency Relief International.

Four years ago, while we were all reeling from news of a giant tsunami across the ocean, Rich was flying: he'd been called to go over there with his team of counselors and help with the psychological clean-up.

He's spent the past week a little bit north of here, dealing with a psychological tidal wave of a different kind. He and his team are counseling the 400ish kids from that compound, about which we're finding out more and more, none of it very good.

As soon as he gives me the go-ahead, I'll share what news he's allowed to share from ground zero.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

owning up

It's always fun to sit back and wait for the responses to come in from my annual dispatch of the things I did in the previous year. People I rarely stay in touch with write back and fill me in; people I see every day say "I had no idea!" about this or that; trends sometimes emerge in what people latch on to, what things stick out in readers' minds.

Harry Potter fans gushed about their experiences of the finale. Sacred Harp wonks wrote of their love for this rich art form.

But, overwhelmingly, the thing that people far and near most responded to was the situation at church, in which my unwise words were the beginning of a firestorm that never should have happened.

The large majority of responses were from people who didn't think that what I'd said was bad at all, but all of the responses commiserated with me at the news of people's reactions. People were disgusted, surprised, unsurprised, and all-around angry that, in need of serious correction as I was, serious correction was exactly what I didn't get.

I'd mentioned that to this day I still didn't know who these Mystery Complainers were; not one person who had been so vocal with everyone else had gotten in touch with me at any time in the year that's passed, not to mention before the blowup when it would have done some good (and when we're commanded to address our problems with each other.)

Well, that's changed. A good friend wrote to me the other day and confessed that he'd been one of the ones who had complained. He phrased it as a confession, and specifically asked for forgiveness.

What a hard thing to do! It really takes guts to own up to stuff like that with someone. But in doing so he enabled me to do something I've been prevented from doing for a year: I was able to ask him for forgiveness as well. If you haven't read my thoughts and conclusions about this situation, I invite you to, because I think I did a pretty good job of summarizing what's so wrong with how it happened (and so often does happen in families, offices, organizations, schools), and with what's so so so right about doing it the right way.

Can it be that we're entering a new chapter in this little corner of the world?